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View from The Hill: national cabinet drops mandatory isolation, dumping ‘COVID exceptionalism’

Prime Minister and state ministers sitting at a large desk
AAP/Mick Tsikas

National cabinet has agreed to lift the five day mandatory isolation period for people contracting COVID, with the Commonwealth’s chief medical officer declaring “it is time to move away from COVID exceptionalism”.

In a landmark step federal, state and territory governments have essentially moved to treating COVID like the flu and similar illnesses.

The isolation requirement will be lifted on October 14. The pandemic payment, designed to compensate workers without sickness leave entitlements and so encourage them to stay at home, will be removed at the same time.

But to protect people at high risk of COVID, national cabinet agreed to continue targeted financial support for casual workers in the aged care, disability care, Aboriginal healthcare and hospital care sectors. The new payment will be on the same basis as the leave payment has been and funded 50:50 between the two levels of government.

Notably, the body that advises national cabinet, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), made up of federal and state health officers, was not asked for advice. Instead Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly provided written advice, at the request of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Several weeks ago Kelly had push back from the AHPPC over the proposal to reduce the isolation period from seven to five days. There was division among the state health officers, and no recommendation from the committee, which is supposed to operate by consensus. National cabinet cut the number of days anyway.

Having the advice come just from Kelly this time avoided any prospect of divided health advice.

But it will still be a controversial decision in some quarters, with epidemiologists and other medical experts split.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Robson said those pushing for the isolation periods to be cut were “not scientifically literate and are putting the public at risk”.

The strongest push for liberalisation has come consistently from the NSW government. Albanese said the national cabinet decision was unanimous.

Explaining the move from “COVID exceptionalism” Albanese told a joint news conference with the other first ministers that as decision makers “we have a responsibility to listen to the health advice but we also have a responsibility to make decisions which are proportionate. That is what we have done.”

“We are changing our position based upon changing advice and changing circumstances. And that has to occur. There’s not a role for government in running every bit of people’s lives forever. And that is my firm position.”

He said “the nature of emergency measures is that they’re not there with no end date in sight”.

“The flu has existed, and health issues have existed, for a long period of time, and the government hasn’t always stepped in to pay people’s wages while people have health concerns. It is not sustainable to have in place a system whereby the government steps in permanently.”

Kelly, sitting beside Albanese at the news conference, said “Isolation itself cannot be seen in isolation”.

It needed to be seen in the context of Australia’s high vaccination rate, high previous infection giving further protection, the availability of treatments, and measures in place to protect the vulnerable.

“It is time to move away from COVID exceptionalism, in my view, and we should be thinking about what we do to protect people from any respiratory disease.”

Kelly provided his advice on Thursday. The first ministers discussed the change over dinner on Thursday night.

In his letter of advice Kelly said: “In the current Australian context of low community transmission and high hybrid immunity from vaccination and recent infection, it is my view that removing mandated isolation requirements in the current period would not materially detract from Australia’s pandemic response and would be consistent with the current aims of that response.

"We have seen a rapid and substantial decrease in cases, hospitalisations and ICU admissions, and the number and size of Residential Aged Care outbreaks since the peak of the most recent BA.5 wave at the end of July 2022.

"Whilst we are closely monitoring new sub-variants of the Omicron variant which continue to emerge, at this stage the situation in Australia is stable.

"In contrast to earlier stages in the pandemic response, Australia now has a number of readily accessed pharmaceutical measures (vaccines and treatments), rapid diagnostic capability, adequate personal protective equipment and appropriate infection prevention and control procedures to protect those at higher risk of severe COVID-19 and to limit outbreaks in high-risk settings.

"On the basis of these current epidemiological and pandemic control settings, in the context of high underlying immunity within the population, as well as readily available pharmaceutical interventions, I consider that a change in mandated isolation periods at this time is a reasonable approach.”

However Kelly stressed new waves of COVID were highly likely and constant vigilance was needed. He urged a detailed transition plan to “adequately prepare Australia to respond to a surge in cases”.

Business, anxious to ensure the economy is as open as possible, especially in light of the worsening economic head winds, welcomed the decision.

The Ai Group (Australian Industry Group) said scrapping the mandatory isolation period “gets the balance right between the health of the community and the desperate need for workers facing so many businesses”.

Meanwhile the Australian Defence Force assistance to aged care facilities to help with COVID ended on Friday. This support has been provided throughout the pandemic, with reinforced efforts announced in February, after Omicron surged.

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